School district in final stages of revising ‘healthy life skills’ curriculum

By Randi B. Hagi, assistant editor

A group charged with reviewing changes to the Harrisonburg City Public Schools sexuality and family life curriculum will be surveying parents about proposed revisions, which include emphasizing topics such as pregnancy prevention, gender identity and sexual consent. 

The committee of educators, parents, community members and students has been reviewing this curriculum for two years, as it had not been comprehensively revised since 1989. In addition to conducting the survey, the committee will make a presentation at the school board’s next meeting, June 1.

Some of the topics the committee has been considering sparked a lengthy debate during Tuesday’s school board work session, including about discussions about individualized education and families’ agency over what their children learn. 

April Howard, the division’s chief officer for student support who oversees counseling services among other duties, said in addition to meeting Virginia Department of Education standards, the committee wanted to ensure consistency in materials being taught at each school in the city and a bigger focus on “mental health topics and overall well being.” 

The committee also proposed renaming the curriculum “healthy life skills.” 

Other topics that need more emphasis, Howard said, are human anatomy and pregnancy prevention.

“That’s coming directly from our counselors and school nurses, especially at the high school level,” she said. 

School board member Kaylene Seigle asked if families could choose to opt out of certain topics within the curriculum.

“I know some families don’t want someone outside of their family to teach about x, y and z. But then there’s also families who don’t teach about x, y and z,” she said. 

Howard said there is some flexibility for a “partial opt-out,” and said the survey to parents will gather feedback to help guide such policies. The committee had intended to conduct the survey last year, but it was delayed by the pandemic. 

Some of the curriculum changes are required by the state, including educating students about human trafficking, gender identity and female genital mutilation.

School board member Obie Hill expressed concerns about that last topic. 

“That seems very graphic,” Hill said. I don’t know if I would feel comfortable with my daughters … having to hear about that.”

Superintendent Michael Richards said some Virginia legislators debating the state requirements a few years ago also questioned whether students needed to learn about that. He added that mental health counselors had pushed for its inclusion.

Other changes that are still a few years away would affect the delivery of math instruction, so that concepts like algebra and geometry are taught in a more integrated way over the years, rather than in separate classes. 

Brian Nussbaum, the division’s secondary math coordinator, said the changes are part of a statewide effort called the Virginia Math Pathways Initiative, which the Virginia Board of Education is still considering. Any such changes wouldn’t go into effect until 2025.

The initiative, as currently drafted, would require high schools to offer half-credit course options on specialized math topics, such as data science and financial modeling, that could be applied to a wider range of careers than the current highest math class offered – calculus. 

“I think that it’s the way that our society progresses,” said School board member Andy Kohen. “Get us out of the silos.”

Taking a wish list to Richmond

Harrisonburg educators will also take their own priorities to the General Assembly next year. 

Richards presented to the school board a draft of policy priorities and action items, which the board’s committee for legislation created. The board established that committee in January

The proposed 2022 Legislative Program lobbies for increased teachers’ pay, broadband access for all, funding for the construction of public schools in lower-income school divisions, as wella s legislation that supports diverse hiring practices.

The school board is slated to suggest changes and vote on the legislative program at the next meeting, June 1.

In the meantime, the division is working to hire more people of color as teachers and administrators. 

Shawn Printz, director of human resources, told the board on Tuesday that the division is actively recruiting teachers from the University of Puerto Rico and has plans to “develop authentic relationships with Historically Black Colleges and Universities” and Hispanic-serving institutions.

Richards said the division hired a consultant to assist with this work: Zerell Johnson-Welch, an attorney and founding member of the Loudoun County Public School Equity Committee. Johnson-Welch also will facilitate a listening tour to collect community input about the roles of school resource officers (SROs).

All eyes on Tuesday’s council meeting

Restarting construction on the second high school now hinges, in part, on the Harrisonburg City Council’s meeting next Tuesday. 

Richards said he hopes the council will vote  to approve a four-cent increase to the real estate tax rate, which would bring it up to 90 cents per $100 of assessed value. 

The increased revenue could be used to help cover bond payments for the new high school’s construction. That would be in addition to incoming federal funds that Richards previously said will cover about six months of construction.

April 30 marked one year since the construction was suspended because of the pandemic’s effects on city revenues. At the time, the board agreed with the contractor, Nielsen Builders, Inc., that either party could withdraw from the contract if construction was not resumed within a year.

“Nielsen has been pretty good to us in terms of … keeping the faith here, and saying, ‘I believe you all as a city are going to figure this out,'” Richards said. “It’s not indefinite though. They’re a business.”

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